Avant Garde (NYC – 80s)


Avant Garde (NYC – 80’s)

When I was young,
it meant rolling around on canvas,
and those floaters that tagged your eyes
in the turn of taillights, nights,
and yes, people dabbling
at heroin (just to say they had),
in the rent-stabilized apartments we’d
(that girl who dragged the plaster
off one wall, the exposed brick looking
so hip–)
everyone loving Burroughs,

Then came death
the violet of a cancer
that should have been rare,
germs that should not
have seeded pneumonia,
and what had shone and buzzed and
danced, like the sparklers
children wave, trying for the letters of
their names
before the glitter goes,
seeped into a search
for t-cells–
and the streets were darker
than purple
and cold poured through
those bricks
as we rubbed our hands over our arms,
all of us,
no matter how many layers
we wore.



Here’s a drafty poem for Kerry O’Connor’s not-at-all-a-prompt on With Real Toads on the avant garde–I’m afraid I took a very uncreative route–but I have been thinking a great deal lately about the 80’s and the onset of the AIDS epidemic. (In case anyone is confused, I’ve never used heroin!)   The pic not exactly right–but what I have.  Thanks.  


IF YOU ARE INTERESTED ONLY!!!!!!! I am posting another version of the poem that I had decided got just too long and was too defensive, in that I seemed to be trying to justify the artistic aspects of the time.  But for anyone interested here is the longer version.  The poem is not really meant to focus on the gay community–though some of the artists that came to mind were gay. But the artists I am referring to below are Julian Schnabel, Robert Mapplethorpe, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Keith Herring, as well as William Burroughs.  


Avant Garde  (80’s- NYC)

When I was young,
it meant, yes, rolling around on canvas, nude;
yes, a Jesus of broken crockery,
yes, a pissed-off cross,
and yes, people dabbling
at heroin,
there in the rent-stabilized apartments
we’d snagged, there
where that girl dragged
the plaster off one wall, (just opposite the bathtub
in the kitchen) the exposed brick looking
so hip–
everyone loving Burroughs,

But it also meant
the floaters that tagged your eyes
in the turns of tailights, nights–for you too
were part of the canvas–
the astonishment of crowns
along the way, the scrawls of Samo, Herring’s babies
crawling the streets,
the twist of hair
danced with
abandon, the chance of legs black-lavendered,
the swooping blur
of the free, the short breaths
of the new, the excitement of the

And then came death
a violet cancer
that should have been rare,
germs that should not
have seeded pneumonia,
and what had shone with the embered swoops
of those sparklers
children stroke across the night
spelling their names before the
glitter goes
drained into a search
for t-cells, and the streets were darker
than purple,
and cold poured through
those exposed bricks,
and we rubbed our hands over our arms,
no matter how many layers
we wore.



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31 Comments on “Avant Garde (NYC – 80s)”

  1. Those days were dark.. and the fear once it came – the hysteria and stories killing something making others more real.. I think it’s a little bit like waking up realizing that the stars were just the headlights of cars passing.

    • ManicDdaily Says:

      Thanks, Bjorn–I kind of think the stars were truly stars! Some very great artists were lost. (I know that’s not what you meant!) But really there were some just great great artists, at least in the visual art field, and of course all of the other arts as well. There’s Basquiat and Keith Herring, but I love the work of this one young man, Frank Moore. Just very sad. k.

  2. claudia Says:

    what struck me most here is that times of great “awakening” and creativity, of breaking out of defined boxes often ends with a disaster – maybe just coincidence… but you got me pondering..

    • ManicDdaily Says:

      I know what you mean, and I didn’t truly mean to imply that kind of equation at all. With HIV, I think there was a terrible confluence of circumstances; in that the disease happened to appear on the scene at the same time that certain types of sexual awakenings, which involved, I think as a backlash from the repression, some excess. The first death was I believe a woman doctor, Grethe Raske, who’d been working in Africa, where the virus developed.

  3. I don’t find this uncreative at all, Karin. This piece shows your genuine talent as a poet in your own right, with the edgy descriptions of a free society gone bad, and youthful innocence lost on the harsh streets of the city, the death toll ever-rising. This strikes me as a most significant poem.

    • ManicDdaily Says:

      Thanks, Kerry– what I meant was that I has been playing with style on some very different poems that were not working out so well so finally just asked myself what I would write in response to the word avant Garde. I made a much longer version that tried to talk specifically about certain artists and feelings of freedom and not to make a direct kind of link between freedom and HIV as I did not want to make that link but I thought the long poem got to be a bit overblown so went back to the original. Thanks as always for your king reading and great prompt. I may still try for the more stylistically adventurous one. K.


  4. Grace Says:

    Such a dark and vivid painting of those years & fearful nights, when death came everywhere ~ It made me remember those times K ~

  5. hedgewitch Says:

    You do a number on the past here, k–the defiance that became fear, the bravery that many had to find to live with loss, the fragility of youth and of youth’s constructs–rebellion, freedom, the importance of the senses–all things that engender a dissolution, yet pull some needed thing from the dissolve. Anyway, this poem is not narrow at all, and very strong in itself, in my opinion.

    • ManicDdaily Says:

      Thanks. My apology was really on the stylistic side–I spent all afternoon with anyone lives in an anyhow town reverberating in my head–of course, cummings is 100 years old so not avant garde! But the things that came out were not so great, so then just took a different approach, though I do have a few ideas I may try to work with. Thanks. Such a very sad time. k.

  6. The gay movement at that time was in a freedom loving, pushing the boundaries stretch when this awful disease struck. It was largely ignored at first despite the startling combination of signs and symptoms and the heartbreaking early deaths. Your poem brought that all back and the sadness I felt at the loss of so many young men and the combination of ignorance and fear that characterized our first response as a medial community.

    • ManicDdaily Says:

      Yes. I just read “And The Band Played On” by Randy Shilts for some other work that I am doing. Of course, I knew the denial was terrible — and then when people paid attention, the response was even worse–but it is very striking to read it set out on a timeline. So very many deaths happened that seemed avoidable–due to prejudice, sure, but also money. (Especially where it concerned the blood supply). So very sad.

      Thanks, Mary. k.

      On Sun, Jun 29, 2014 at 10:05 AM, ManicDDaily wrote:


  7. brian miller Says:

    whew. what a turn eh? like the rubber band stretched too far and then snapped back in the other direction….

  8. naramalone Says:

    I thought the contrast between the defying death and cultural restrictions and the plague that followed was creative and bold.

  9. This is a fantastic write – the glitter of the early days, turning to the chill of one after another succumbing to disease. Great closing lines, rubbing the shoulders which were cold “no matter how many layers we wore”

  10. Mama Zen Says:

    Wow. Dark, sharp write.

  11. I don’t think AIDS killed the avant-garde — not that you’re saying that here, as you’ve pointed out in comments, and even though the avant-garde did die in the 80’s — but the reader can’t help but make the comparison, as you apparently use the avant-garde as a metaphor for casual sex and drug use. I have to say the metaphor doesn’t really work for me (it’s not fair to the artists), but in the second stanza you evoke very well the terror of those days. I still love Burroughs though!

    • ManicDdaily Says:

      Hi Mark, you are right–and I am not meaning to make that equation at all, and I don’t think the avant garde died in the 80’s. I am also not really writing a metaphor. Perhaps the title is wrong. I was really writing about what the words (avant garde) brought up for me having lived in downtown NYC in the 80s. In case you are interested–here is a longer version of the poem, which I decided just didn’t work as well, but I try to write more there about the magic of that time too–I am going to post that other poem–just curious to see.

      I am not totally a fan of Burroughs, though I think he can certainly be very evocative. Honestly, I thought Junkie was his best book, though it is the least “avant garde.”

      I didn’t really think the poem through that much–honestly, if I were to write about the avant garde in a truer way I’d be fairly critical of it, as I think it is often a bit misogynist. (Maybe my problem with Boroughs.) But that is just my take.

      I tried posting the other version on the comment but it won’t come out spaced right, so maybe will do as separate post. k.


      • I’d be interested in reading your thoughts on the 80’s, avant-gardism and NY (I was living there too in the early 80’s). My attitude and thoughts on avant-gardism are complex and deeply ambivalent. I’m especially interested in your take on the misogyny in it. “Love” was not quite the right word for how I feel about Burroughs. It’s more accurate to say I find him fascinating. But one of the problems I have with him is the way he divided the world into two camps: those who dominate and those who are violated and controlled. Life just isn’t that simple. And women had no place at all in his world (except as a William Tell joke).

      • ManicDdaily Says:

        Hi Mark–I really didn’t mean the poem to sum up my whole view on the avant garde or New York in the 80s! I was tangentially involved in the art world at that time, and there honestly was, I think, a certain amount of drug use, if not casual sex. (I wasn’t involved in it — I’ve always been rather puritanical!) And I felt that although some women jumped the divide–Patti–there was, in some circles, a kind of hero worship of the Beats and even certain other cultish figures (maybe Kurosawa?) who have a very male-focused world view and certainly not one that encompassed women and children. (The William Tell joke didn’t go over very well.) Even the more family oriented beat-style poets– like Gary Snyder–left their wives! Anyway–but I did not mean that AIDS was some sort of punishment–it was just the most horrible thing–and maybe particularly shocking in the context because it played out like some crazy punishment in the eyes of some–and it was especially sad for people who’d been in a kind of hiding for so long–it was just horrible. Anyway–I felt the poem was a bit dangerous in how it would be interpreted, but you write what you write, you know–k.

        On Sun, Jun 29, 2014 at 5:52 PM, ManicDDaily wrote:


      • ManicDdaily Says:

        ps I posted the longer version now–which has specific references to artists–so maybe a broader context.

        On Sun, Jun 29, 2014 at 5:52 PM, ManicDDaily wrote:


    • ManicDdaily Says:

      Hi Mark–I posted another version of the poem that may seem fairer to the artists, or at least more specifically refers to the wonder of many of them, whom I like very much. k .

  12. Jim Says:

    That’s the way it was. In the 60’s and 70’s too, and still now. Just a different crowd now, a different place, and still hanger-oners. I was fortunate that in the 60’s and 70’s I could ride in on my motorcycle, join in (we had bands–Houston parks–under nearly every other tree–ZZ Top was one, starting in ’69) for the evenings and weekend afternoons along the bayou or sitting on the loading docks of the downtown businesses, someone was always playing music.

    Then I could ride out, most times. I had another life to live in the day.

    • Jim Says:

      I liked reading this, either version. Lots of memories stirred.
      My travels find some of the old bunch, including old hippies not changed, now hang out by the hordes in Colorado and Vermont. Probably there are other places. And still there in cities a new version of what and who you write of.

  13. Ella Says:

    You shared the glitter and the cold-so bold and raw. Bravo for going there-I am fascinated with how you brought this world to life~
    Bravo-it is so good-I have to read it again!

  14. hedgewitch Says:

    Well, k–I can’t say I prefer either poem, they’re both good, and they both address a mood, a feeling, of the narrator, rather than abstract fact. That’s poetry, after all, to interpret events through feeling and association. The 80’s was not my time, so I view it as something degenerating, sliding toward the mono-culture of consumption and commercialization we have now, but of course, like any generational period, it had its innovators and experimenters and the rebelling voices which if they produce anything original are inevitably turned into money by/for other people(a la Hard Day’s Night.) The second version adds lots of detail but retains the urgency and flow–both are quite complete in themselves.

  15. grapeling Says:

    I was at Berkeley in the early 80’s. A local lefty weekly, the East Bay Express, had a number of writers who wrote extensively on what was then called GRIDS (gay-related immuno deficiency syndrome), as well as coining the the term Yuppie (Guppie being the gay equivalent). We didn’t have the same cachet as New York (let alone SF) insofar as the art scene, though likely just as much attitude. As Joy notes, you return us to the air and atmosphere of that time in both pens. Were I forced to choose, I’d pick the latter, as being more specific in the naming, therefore more personal ~

  16. Brendan Says:

    I’m perpetually late getting around here, sorry … The two versions of the poem cut at different depths, the first more antiseptically I suppose, sharper and cleaner, the second gushing more emphatic — empathetic, too, suppose — blood: The core of “avant-garde” is in the second poem here:

    … the swooping blur
    of the free, the short breaths
    of the new, the excitement of the

    Pre-AIDS there’s still a naivite to the enthusiasm — as if you really could screw the world without consequence — the AIDS-induced adulthood is terrifying. Did it also put the artists of the day to the test? The last 10 lines are brilliant, no comfort but also the litmus test for the avant-garde as play versus a deadly serious celebration. Great write —

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